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Friday May 26, 2017
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The Flow Never Stops



McCormick, smart, direct, and earnest, came to Ann Arbor from the Lansing Board of Water and Light. Replacing the West Plant and refitting the solid waste removal building weren't part of her initial brief. But a few years into the job, McCormick says, "I began hearing from the front line people that the equipment was bubble-gummed and rubber-banded together, that they were doing reactive maintenance, not preventative maintenance."

McCormick eventually proposed two extremely ambitious and extremely expensive building projects: gutting and refitting the solid waste removal building with up-to-date equipment, then demolishing and rebuilding the whole West Plant. At a total estimated cost of $140 million, the combined projects will be far and away the biggest civic building project in the city's history.

How can a city that's laying off staff afford to spend $140 million on sewage? The short answer is that sewers are paid for by user fees. That means the system isn't subject to the strict tax limitations that restrict spending on everything from police officers to parks. And because state law bars cities from diverting user fees for other purposes, it's not subject to the tense tradeoffs that mark the rest of the city budget.

Asked how the projects are going to be paid for, McCormick has a simple answer: "They'll be funded by bonds," she says. "And the bonds will be paid for by the users."

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